Undermining higher order thinking in the pursuit of the mundane…


What is going on ?
My district has made a strong commitment to starting to switch over to Common Core standards before the 2014 deadline. How committed? Folks have been sent to trainings, in the face of a $28M budget shortfall. Hearing what was being brought back, second-hand, was not giving me a good idea of what the district has in mind, so I made the leap of volunteering to go as a representative from my site, to the district’s Common Core ELA leadership cadre. I went with a co-worker who has been attending these meetings for the last two years. Apparently things are becoming clearer, but that’s not necessarily better.

First, I and others have always said it would be the assessments that would be where we’d find out what they really want us to teach. The Smarter Balanced assessment consortium has put out some sample items from their first crack at the computer-based assessment. You can find the ELA version here. I’m underwhelmed if this is supposed to be “next generation”. It reminds me of IWB, in that it’s just delivering the same old questions on a screen instead of paper, with a smidge of interactivity to make it seem “magical” and “new”.

Here is the first task:

What does Naomi learn about Grandma Ruth? Use details from the text to support your answer.

 Type your answer in the space provided.

This is the one that makes me wonder if the desire of many CCSS supporters for “supporting details” will completely undermine their desire to have kids doing analytical thinking. Here is another task later in the sample:

Based on what you read in the text, do you think cell phones should be allowed in schools? Using the lists provided in the text, write a paragraph arguing why your position is more reasonable than the opposing position.

Notice, students are told to use the list provided, not their own thoughts or experience. In an earlier version of this, they are told which side they are taking, given some arguments, and a list and told to “improve” a piece. This isn’t analysis, or rhetoric, but regurgitation. It’s preparing kids to spit back talking points, with no connection to their own thinking. It prepares them for a job-market that makes for great satire (ala “OfficeSpace”, etc.) but is that what we want our kids to grow up and do for the world?

Some more examples of tasks that “electrify” what we are already asking them on paper:


Read the sentences from the passage. Then answer the question.
Click on two phrases from the paragraph that help you understand the meaning of scarred.

I’ve seen this done with paper bubble-tests asking them to  “pick out which phrase helped you understand”. What if the kid already knows what scarred means? I had a kid who had gotten burns over 80% of his body at age 6, I’m sure he doesn’t need to use context clues to figure out the word meaning. Other kids know the words already from reading, so having them go through this exercise is NOT assessing them on vocabulary knowledge, but rather on the ability to derive meaning from context clues, a useful task, but it’s a tool not the end product.

Same thing, this time with comprehension:

Select three sentences that show that Naomi is worried she has done something wrong.

It’s an improvement over paper tests only in that kids aren’t given a “hint” by having four sentences in front of them to choose from, but they have to fish it out on their own. I’d call that a level one “change”, and not a game-changer.

In this comprehension task, students are given a video to view and then asked…

Why does the video compare being in space to lying in bed?

to tell how an astronaut needs sleep

to describe how an astronaut floats in space

to explain that an astronaut’s work is very difficult

to show how an astronaut’s body lacks gravity to help it work

Once more, the questions are recall level. The video will be better for kids more oriented to that, than print and that’s about the only advantage I’m seeing in all of this.

What happens with they do ask for kids for some thought of their own? Well there is this writing task:

Write an ending for the story by adding details to tell what happens next.

My first thought, what are the parameters for this? You could get all sorts of answers to that task from a given group of students. If given to older students (I’m guessing from the writing level it’s for elementary), they are all about exploring parody and satire, how are you going to grade someone adding a “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” type ending to this fishing tale? Without specifications, that sort of answer is not really wrong.

My next post will reveal that the consultants have been watching David Coleman over the summer and have gotten the word that pre-reading is bad and should be banished to the detention room of bad practices.

Photo Credit:What is going on ? by SAN_DRINO, on Flickr

3 Comments to

“Undermining higher order thinking in the pursuit of the mundane…”

  1. October 15th, 2012 at 12:44 pm      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:

    “Write an ending for the story by adding details to tell what happens next.” seems particularly un-CC. Is that just a narrative writing prompt and not a reading prompt at all?

    • October 15th, 2012 at 5:58 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      You’re right. It’s not. It’s bad, but not Common Core bad. Look at the assessments though. The one on arguing about cell phones seemed more in line with CCSS.

      I’m just wondering, how on Earth they’re supposed to get to synthesis if you keep hammering them to focus on the text in front of them?

  2. October 16th, 2012 at 2:52 am      Reply Anne Says:

    Thanks for the peek behind the scenes, Alice. Another problem will be computer access and bandwidth. When every kid hits a “watch this video” question, systems will overload. And high poverty schools like mine simply don’t have enough computers for testing. The computers we do have will be in constant use for tests and kids will never be able to use them for research or other authentic purposes.

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